RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Until a few years ago, not many people paid much attention to the extreme sport of free diving. That's where a swimmer packs as much air as they can into their lungs and plunges as deep as they possibly can into the sea - no oxygen tank, just that one breath to keep them going. But in November of 2013, a tragedy brought free diving into the spotlight when Nicholas Mevoli from Brooklyn died while attempting a record-breaking plunge in the Bahamas. Writer Adam Skolnick was there to cover that event, and Mevoli's death brought him inside this sport in a way he never expected. His new book is called "One Breath: Freediving, Death, And The Quest To Shatter Human Limits." Adam Skolnick joins us from our studios at NPR West. Welcome to the show, Adam.
ADAM SKOLNICK: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Let's start off by just explaining how free diving works. It seems almost impossible that a human being could survive two to 300 feet down in the sea for more than three minutes without supplemental oxygen. Technically, physiologically, how does this work?
SKOLNICK: When an athlete prepares to dive, the first thing they'll do is they'll do a breathe-up. And they'll make sure that they're as relaxed as possible. So their heart rate gets as low as possible. And that way, they become more efficient with the oxygen they do take with them. And then they'll do a peak inhalation. They'll breathe their lungs to the absolute maximum. In fact, they'll pack their lungs up and above what their total lung volume would be.
SKOLNICK: And so when they take that breath, that is their oxygen tank. They - their body goes through all these changes. Their veins and arteries and arms and legs constrict. That blood gets shifted to their core. Their heart rate drops to half their resting limit. And that's something called a mammalian dive reflex. And it's the same things dolphins and seals and sea lions go through when they go as deep as they can.
MARTIN: Before Nick Mevoli died, how did people who are in this sport at the elite levels, how did they perceive the risks?
SKOLNICK: Well, I think that, you know, because Nick was the first to die in over 35,000 competitive free dives, they were really comfortable that they were doing something that was safe. It might have appeared extreme from the outside looking in. But to them, it was safe, you know. But what was happening that people weren't talking about as much is people were having lung industries. And that's called a lung squeeze, which means the blood vessels in your lungs, which are engorged with that blood that has shifted to your core, might leak fluid into your alveoli, or your air sacs, and cause micro-tears. And you might end up spitting blood for days, weeks afterwards. And so there was this misperception that kind of grew over a couple or three years where people got comfortable with this spitting of blood. And Nick was one of them.
MARTIN: Tell us about Nick Mevoli. What was he like? You spent a lot of time talking with people who knew him. He was someone who took to the water really early.
SKOLNICK: I mean, Nick was just a one-of-a-kind soul. You know, he was - when he was 1 and a half years old, the family dog pushed him into the pool. His grandmother was out by the pool kind of hanging laundry and lost track of him. By the time she figured out what happened, she looked down. And there he was with these big, brown eyes looking back at her and just so comfortable underwater. And by the time he was 10 years old, he's holding his breath for almost three minutes.
MARTIN: He rose really quickly in the sport of free diving and traveled all over the world in these competitions. He eventually found himself in the Bahamas for this important competition. And he hadn't been feeling well.
SKOLNICK: Yeah. So in the weeks leading up to the dive, he was pushing really hard. And so he had a series of lung squeezes. And the lung squeezes for him started from his very first competition. And they continued through his two years competing. He was kind of depressed from overtraining. He wasn't right in his mind. And he was physically hurt, but he went for it anyway. And on the dive itself, he - it took a minute longer than planned because it didn't go smoothly. But he still came up under his own power, broke the surface. And he was - looked like to be breathing on his own for about a minute after the dive. And that's when he fell back and blacked out. And it's one thing if he'd blacked out right away. But what they saw was an athlete who seemed to be breathing for almost a minute and then fell back. And so that was something they'd never seen before. And so it was important to find out what happened. He was also the first death. And so one diver in particular, Dr. Kerry Hollowell, happened to be a doctor and was friends with Nick. She kind of took it upon herself to look into what happened to him and how his lung injuries were related to what happened that day.
MARTIN: What's it like? You've gotten into this now. You've done some free diving. What does it feel like?
SKOLNICK: What I like to say to people is, when they ask me how I learned to free dive, I like to go to my favorite joke, which is how many athletes does it take to teach a journalist how to free dive?
SKOLNICK: Lots. I think it was like 19 or something like that. I don't know. But, you know, it's funny because I am an ocean person. Like, I go to a quarter-mile, a half-mile offshore. And I'll swim a mile or two miles at a time. And I'll do that in Malibu. And where I go, there's a reef. And we do some dives along the reef, the group of us that go do that - and to about 40, 50 feet maximum there. So I was - I'm comfortable in the ocean. And I thought free diving wouldn't be too hard for me. I'm an experienced scuba diver, a tech diver. But, you know, it's different when you go - when you're diving on a line, you're free diving. It's just - you have to do things differently. And so it took me a long time to get comfortable with the pressure, as I went down, on my lungs, with just the whole idea of feeling like you have to breathe and then still going down anyway.
MARTIN: And not panicking.
SKOLNICK: Not panicky. So even for me, who's really comfortable in the water, it took a lot - a long time. Maybe I'm more neurotic than most. But it took a long time for me to get comfy. But then I had this one moment where it clicked for me. And I was down at about 20 meters, about 66 feet. And I didn't have any urge to breathe. And all around me was this beautiful blue world. And I came up, and I felt so relaxed. And for that whole day, like, I'd close my eyes and I would just see that blue world. It was just something that was in my head. And I woke up the next morning just wanting to do it again. And I eventually got to a hundred feet, or 30 meters, during that course. And - but that's something that stays with you. And that's just me, an entry-level - that's a level 2 free diver. I think that the effects are even greater. I know that they are even greater for these athletes that go to 100 meters. I mean, I can't even imagine that. But they get to a place - it's like part athletic, part spiritual. And it's definitely addictive 'cause it's so beautiful.
MARTIN: Adam Skolnick is the author of "One Breath: Freediving, Death, And The Quest To Shatter Human Limits." Adam, thanks so much.
SKOLNICK: Thank you.
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